A reflection for a post Superbowl morning:
The columnist, David Brooks, recently observed that “Throughout Western history, there have been three major athletic traditions. First, there was the Greek tradition. Greek sports were highly individualistic. There was little interest in teamwork. Instead sports were supposed to inculcate aristocratic virtues like courage and endurance. They gave individuals a way to achieve eternal glory.
Then, there was the Roman tradition. In ancient Rome, free men did not fight in the arena. Roman sports were a spectacle organized by the government. The free Romans watched while the slaves fought and were slaughtered. The entertainment emphasized the awesome power of the state. (Remember the movie, “Gladiator.”)
Finally, there was the British tradition. In the Victorian era, elite schools used sports to form a hardened ruling class. Unlike the Greeks, the British placed tremendous emphasis on team play and sportsmanship. If a soccer team committed a foul, it would withdraw its goalie to permit the other team to score. The object was to inculcate a sense of group loyalty, honor and rule-abidingness — traits that were important to a class trying to manage a far-flung empire.” (Remember the film, “Chariots of Fire.”)
It’s interesting to ponder – on the day after the Superbowl, how the Greeks, Romans, and British created a context for today’s sports world. In Miami we witnessed individual excellence (Drew Brees), the power of the state, (the absolutely over the top extravagance of the event itself, complete with the Star Spangled Banner — Air Force flyover and The Who), and of course the sense of loyalty and honor that were displayed among teammates.
I’d like you to focus, though, on Brooks’ last line – that the object of sports was to inculcate loyalty and honor.
A few weeks ago, you may remember my complaining –ok, ok, maybe I was whining (you see I’m not Greek, Roman, or British) – about Thierry Henry, the French soccer player whose handball ousted Ireland from the World Cup. At the time, I said that, while I didn’t like it, it’s hard to imagine anyone doing anything other than what the French did – which was to accept the goal and move on.
But then Mr. White, our Athletic Director at the Prep, reminded me of something that once happened at a Prep hockey game. Some of you may have been on Mr. Perren’s team that is described in a letter I received February 15, 2005, 5 years ago this week:
I would like to take this opportunity to comment the Upper Canada College athletic program and coaches. I recently watched the performance of the Upper Canada College Under 14 hockey team. The team played at a high level and showed great sportsmanship.
Attending the recent LCC Tournament in Montreal, I watched a game between Appleby College and UCC. (I happen to be the father of an Appleby player).
During the first period, a UCC player shot the puck towards the goal. Due to poor positioning by the officials, some controversy arose over whether the puck crossed the line. Following a conference between the officials, a goal was awarded to UCC. The Appleby coach politely presented his case of an errant shot without success. Next the UCC coach signaled the official for a conference. My first reaction was that the AC and UCC rivalry must start at an early age. To my astonishment, I saw the official proceed toward the AC goalie, signal for a face off near the goal, and wave off the goal.
With the score remaining tied during most of the game, the contest was most enjoyable for the parents and fans. The efforts of both teams were at a maximum level in this close athletic match. They hockey game remained close until later in the final period when UCC scored additional goals. The UCC coach later said, “My players on the ice said the shot was not a goal.”
I am compelled to write to ensure you are aware of this great act of sportsmanship by your coach and players. An athletic competition is played, not only for the outcome but also for the activity itself and to learn sportsmanship. UCC’s hockey team displayed true sportsmanship. As Old Boys, this will be a proud moment for them to reflect on.”
I don’t know if our players remember that moment or even that game, but clearly what happened at the LCC tournament 2005 involved much more than hockey. What Mr. Perren and the U-14 hockey team did – in that simple yet completely counter-cultural moment, was to show all of us what honour looks like. I hope that their example will stay with all of us as we continue to compete on the ice, hardwood, fields, and courts of life.